Susan C. Barta, or Susie as she is known to her family and friends, was a fighter from the beginning. Born during a blizzard, 3 months premature at just 3 pounds 12 ounces, she was also a thriver. Maybe it was that experience that taught her how to make an arrival and hold an audience.
Susan comes from a long line of activists and educators. Her mother, Reva DeCora Barta, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, passed along bravery, leadership, and honor. Leading by example, Reva had her daughter by her side during the formation of AIM and during some of the most trying times for indigenous peoples’ fight to equality and freedom. Her father, George Barta, a member of the Yankton-Sioux and a proud Catholic, taught her strength through community involvement and understanding of the law. George was pivotal in starting many grassroots organizations that helped build the leaders of today. He started the Region VII American Indian Council, which officially began in 1972 and continues to thrive today where it is known as the American Indian Council Employment and Training Program. That program is housed in the Iowa Work Force building locally but has 4 other locations including an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Susan continues to carry on her father’s work with that organization. George was a union leader and community activist. He was on the scene of several contentious actions where workers had to stand up for their rights. Many times, Susie was by his side or in the crowd. She learned from the bottom up that she had a responsibility to care for her community and stand up for her rights.
One pivotal moment in her memory was in 1973, when Susan was at the takeover of Wounded Knee. “Chief Fool’s Crow looked at me and said, ‘You must learn the white man’s world, and use that to empower the Indian world.”
Even as her family was involved in advancing civil rights, Susan felt the sting of racism first hand while she attended Isabella Sloan School in Morningside. She learned to balance the stereotypes hurled at her with the truth. She formed strong bonds and friendships despite the attempted bullying. Susan graduated from East High in Sioux City in 1975. She took her experience into the workforce, continuing to build bonds of community with everyone she met. Susan has leadership that transcends her surroundings. She is equally confident speaking with people on skid row, in board rooms, or the highest levels of government.
Professionally Susan started selling advertising at the union hall at the age of 13. She learned office etiquette and business planning. Her parents reinforced that work ethic. There was always a thread of activism. Susan has been a community services coordinator aka van driver, librarian, bingo caller, Executive Director of Native American Alcohol Treatment Program, a cook, General manager of a hotel, College recruiter, owned her own cleaning service, and on and on. Her diverse employment history put her in touch with a myriad of people In all situations and taught her to respect people where they are and help them improve.
Building community starts at home and progresses out into a neighborhood, organizations, cities, counties and beyond. Volunteering is crucial to that process. Susan has served on numerous boards, committees and commissions. To name a few of her accomplishments: She was on the first Sioux City Mayor’s youth commission. She is a founding member of Woodbury County Drug Court and served as a Judge until 2012. She served on the Sioux City Human Rights commission for 2 terms. She was appointed to the Woodbury County Commission for at Risk Youth. Served as Treasurer, Vice President and eventually 3 consecutive terms as board President of the Community Action Agency of Siouxland. She was asked to join the Iowa Legal Aid Corporate Board and acted as board secretary for several years.
Years of community involvement and understanding available resources as well as applicable laws keeps her phone ringing. She frequently gets calls from community members in crisis, organizations looking for direction or understanding and so on. She receives calls from Tribal leaders, business leaders and government leaders. One of those calls came in July of 2021 from the Iowa Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, asking her if she would be willing to join. The commission is a project close to her heart because it focuses on bringing equal justice to all. Her projects with the commission focus on Veterans, the Iowa Law Library but touch aspects of other social and economic barriers that effect Iowans. They are bridging the gap to legal services.
In many cases, services exist but those in need can’t locate them on their own, Susan helps to light the path. Her over 60 years of community service make her a living history resource. She connects lost family members with their families. This isn’t knowledge you can get from reading a book, it comes from a life of service, meeting community members where they live. Although she is mostly retired, she is working on several books and short stories. She delights audiences as a motivational speaker and operates as a consultant to many organizations. No matter where she goes, she is greeted from across crowded rooms or parking lots with accolades of “Susie Barta is that you?” then she stops to talk. If you see her out in the community, feel free to say hello.
By Amy Buster